CLEANTECH: Turbines Into Thin Air

By Published On: November 6, 2009

Capturing the energy of powerful, high-altitude wind is within reach, say researchers and advocates of this emerging technology. Suspending small rotors in kite-like materials, as well as floating large airborne generating projects the size of airplane wings between 6,000 and 30,000 feet to harness wind power, is the focus of the first high-altitude wind energy conference being held at the end of this week in Oroville. Energy from this experimental technology can be fed into the grid, used offshore, or used on site to pump groundwater to the surface, said Cristina Archer, assistant professor of energy and meteorology at California State University at Chico. Winds at higher elevations are much stronger than ones at lower elevations--between 50 to 100 knots, Archer noted. Northern California is one of the regions said to hold high wind energy potential. The airborne rotors and other generating devices play off the different pressures of wind, with the air flow keeping the devices afloat and capturing the excess power. Archer said the rotors can be various sizes and weights. The systems are tied to the ground with large cables. The rotors are angled to capture the wind flow, which allows them to become airborne and remain suspended while capturing surplus energy. The wind projects are expected to at first produce a few hundred watts and eventually many megawatts. One prototype resembles a sideways figure eight that can be suspended at about 6,000 feet. It is tethered at two ends and the bobbing and weaving of the paraglide sail-like structure activates a generator close to the ground. The technology is at a “very early stage,” acknowledged Archer. She said it was being tested at some airports. While private money and venture capital has been invested in some lofty wind energy projects, none to date have received federal stimulus money. Few have been awarded California Energy Commission research funds. The impact of high elevation wind projects on birds is unknown at this point. “It needs to be studied” Archer said. While some may dismiss the high elevation wind power potential, Archer noted that 100 years ago few believed that the fossil fuels beneath the earth’s service could be tapped. The next energy frontier is tapping into “the river of wind,” she said.

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